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U.S. Defense Department To Close Major Command, Slash Spending

  • RFE/RL

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (file photo)

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has announced major spending cuts within the Department of Defense in an attempt to bow to the realities of two high-priced wars and soaring government debt.

Gates' announcement, at a lengthy Pentagon press conference on August 9, was the first step in his pledge to find $100 billion in savings within the country's military budget.

He said the money is needed elsewhere within the Defense Department to repair a force ravaged by years of war and to prepare troops for future military operations.

"In May I called on the Pentagon to take a hard and unsparing look at how the department is staffed, organized, and operated," Gates said.

"I concluded that our headquarters and support bureaucracies -- military and civilian alike -- have swelled to cumbersome and top-heavy proportions, grown over-reliant on contractors, and grown accustomed to operating with little consideration to cost. This manifested itself over the past decade in vast increases in spending and staff."

Gates described the cutbacks as just the first of many "inefficiencies" that he plans to uncover and said the Defense Department must separate its "appetites from real requirements."

The annual U.S. defense budget is around $700 billion, which includes spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The cutbacks will require the closure of a major military command along with possible base closures, a reduction in the use of outside contractors, and personnel cutbacks among "top brass" -- including generals and admirals -- across all branches of the armed forces.

"As a result of the wars, this department has taken on new missions and responsibilities that have required some [of these] new senior military and civilian [posts]," Gates said.

"But apart from meeting these genuine war-related needs we have also seen an acceleration of what Senator John Glenn called -- more than 20 years ago -- 'brass creep.' A situation where personnel of higher and higher rank are assigned to do things that could reasonably be handled by personnel of lower rank."

Major Command Center Cut

By far the biggest blow in the announced cuts is to the Joint Forces Command, which is located in the port city of Norfolk, Virginia, 330 kilometers south of Washington.

The command center employs some 2,800 military and civilians and is supported by 3,000 outside contractors, according to Defense Department figures. The cost of running the center is around $250 million a year.

The Defense Department said the command's areas of responsibility, which include coordinating the work of the various armed forces on the battlefield, will be reassigned.

Gates was appointed by former President George W. Bush, a Republican, and was kept on by President Barack Obama, a Democrat. Among members of Congress, he has bipartisan support and the confidence of top lawmakers on key committees.

But his decision to eliminate jobs and cut spending will hit many Americans where it hurts -- in their wallet. Gates himself acknowledged as much.

"I've also authorized each of the military departments to consider consolidation or closure of excess bases or facilities, where appropriate. This is obviously a politically fraught topic," Gates said.

"Currently, Congress has placed legal constraints on [the Department of Defense's] ability to close installations. But 'hard' is not 'impossible.' And I hope Congress will work with us to reduce unnecessary costs in this part of the defense enterprise."

Reaction from Congress was swift, as lawmakers whose constituents would be affected by the military cuts indicated that Gates might have a tough time getting approval for his decisions on Capitol Hill.

Representative Howard McKeon (Republican, California), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, said Gates "will have to convince members of this committee that these efforts will not weaken our nation's defense."

Senator Mark Warner (Democrat, Virginia) objected specifically to Gates' decision to eliminate the Joint Forces Command in his state. Warner said he could see "no rational basis" for closing the command.

One politician did react positively, however. In a statement, President Obama praised his defense chief's efforts to "reform the way the Pentagon does business."

written by Heather Maher, with agency material
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